Another 48 experiments used radiation on people

June 28, 1994|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- An additional 48 human radiation experiments, including tests on pregnant women and infants, may have been conducted without consent, the Energy Department said yesterday.

The disclosures about human tests were among hundreds of pages of once secret data that included new information about underground nuclear explosions as well as details about the nation's stockpile of highly enriched uranium and plutonium.

In detailing the human experiments, department officials acknowledged that there was little evidence that patients gave consent and that many of the experiments had "no potential therapeutic benefit to the subjects themselves."

The disclosures were the latest installment of Energy Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary's pledge to make public classified information about nuclear weapons programs, research and production whose roots stem from the Cold War.

The information released yesterday updates a 1986 report that detailed radiation experiments on about 800 people.

Ms. O'Leary also divulged for the first time official informatioabout stockpiles of highly enriched uranium and plutonium, two of the basic building blocks of nuclear warheads.

Ms. O'Leary acknowledged a 6,030-pound gap between the amount of plutonium that government documents say exists and the amount that has been confirmed in the nation's inventory. The uranium shortfall, she said, is roughly 2,900 pounds.

Ms. O'Leary said the shortage doesn't mean that plutonium or uranium has been stolen, only that formulas used for estimating the amounts actually on hand are flawed.

Documents released yesterday also showed that the government conducted more than 90 secret, underground nuclear tests in Nevada between 1963 and 1992.

Ms. O'Leary said that the tests remained undetected because the warheads were configured in a "string of pearls," which means that multiple warheads were detonated at the same time as announced blasts.

Ms. O'Leary also acknowledged that one such test using plutonium-fuel designed for a commercial reactor was successfully used to build a bomb.

With the most recent release, the Energy Department said that "all underground nuclear weapons tests of all types and configurations have now been declassified."

Information on the human experiments was based on a review of more than 11,000 documents.

Among the details:

* At Vanderbilt University Hospital, pregnant women were given radioactive iron from 1942 to 1949 to determine the absorption of iron during pregnancy and its distribution in fetal tissues.

* Iodine-131 was injected into hospital patients, according to a University of California research study. The experiments were conducted to investigate new methods for treating thyroid cancer. The research, partially financed by the government, was conducted between July 1949 and April 1950.

* In 1953, studies were conducted at the University of Iowa to determine the absorption rate of Iodine-131 in the thyroids of human embryos.

The radioactive substance was given to women scheduled for abortions.

The fetuses were later checked for the presence of iodine-131. Researchers found the material in 4-week-old fetuses, more than a month earlier than expected.

* An unknown number of terminally ill cancer patients were injected with strontium-85 as part of a series of experiments dubbed by the Atomic Energy Commission as "Project Sunshine."

After the patients died, various body tissues were analyzed for radiation effect, the documents said.

Ms. O'Leary said that she was most troubled by some of the "Project Sunshine" experiments that also included the use of pregnant women and their aborted fetuses as test subjects.

The Energy Department disclosed that nearly $3.7 million has been spent in trying to learn more about the extent of human radiation experiments since World War II, particularly during the 1940s and early 1950s.

It said that the document searches eventually would cost at least $24 million.

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